What is the happiest academic career stage?

‘Sitting in snow-covered northern Sweden only added to the feeling of having entered a global academic world’

A very specific time when I felt happiest was about a decade into my academic career, in 1989. I was a senior lecturer at La Trobe University but I was on sabbatical in Umeå, Sweden and was about to give a public lecture related to my PhD – part of a series over that year that included speakers from other countries whose work I had read and admired.

A number of things came together at that point. After several years on contracts, I was settled in an ongoing position, in a school I liked. Teaching loads were very reasonable by today’s standards, and I had been in my teaching and research roles long enough to feel competent in what I was doing. I was not concerned about whether I would ever gain any further promotion in the academic ranks, so I did not impose undue pressure on myself. And nor was undue pressure imposed upon me: it was not yet a time in Australian universities when our lives would be driven by multiple performance indicators and the need to win competitive grants.

But what I was thrilled by, as someone from a working-class background who felt lucky to be working in a university at all, was to have people in other countries actually interested in the writing I had been doing, and to have an opportunity to engage and exchange with them.

Around the town, my name and topic (“Does ‘all students’ include girls?”) were displayed on posters, and I remember writing to a friend about how unbelievable it seemed for someone who had grown up in provincial Australia (often stereotyped as a place of sexism and lack of sophistication) to be asked to give a lecture on my work in Sweden, the icon of modernity and enlightened gender relations in my (equally stereotyped) perception.

The fact that I was now sitting in snow-covered northern Sweden, leaving my two young children and summer behind in Australia, only added to the feeling of having really entered a global academic world. I have had many happy times and other pleasures since, but never so little weighed down by aspects of the work that are a burden or cause anxiety alongside the pleasures.

For many, the major happiness of an academic career would be a sense that their work has made a difference and will live on. But in the social sciences you also realise how quickly the world – including the world of ideas – moves on.

Still, the intellectual stimulation of exchanging ideas and building research has continued to be a central source of pleasure, and these are not found only in the research and writing component of academic work. Teaching and graduate supervision are often recognised as having at least some component of this intellectual pleasure, but I found it also in more senior and management-adjacent roles in universities and on research councils – assessing grants, working cross-faculty, serving on promotion and appointment committees, debating directions for funding or new developments. But the sheer workload and zero-sum elements of much of that work are also inescapable.

There are specific pleasures that come with moving on in the academic world and becoming more senior. These include seeing those one has supervised or mentored doing well; of mixing as an equal with different groups across the university; of (at times) being effective and fair in managing committees and processes; and of advocating for and achieving changes, especially in relation to women in the university. But these are often more like satisfactions than “happiness”.

The extrinsic recognitions and markers of success (grant success in particular) do give one something more closely resembling outright happiness. But, by that stage in your career, you know that this is just a moment that will soon pass before you are required to do it all again.  

Lyn Yates is an honorary professor in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She was formerly pro vice-chancellor (research).

 

‘If I had been asked what would make me happy, I might have pointed to the head of department’

Among some difficult times and many more wonderful career opportunities, I struggle to identify a single period when I was happiest. But perhaps it is worth focusing on my PhD, as it turned out to be a microcosm of the challenges, excitement and connection that can come with being part of a university.

These challenges were very much front of mind when I exchanged small talk with my avuncular head of department at a Friday function about a year into my project. As the conversation finished, he commented that he always enjoyed talking to graduate students, who were in the middle of the best experience of their lives. As a senior academic, whose own PhD had been the first in a long list of prestigious publications, he made this statement sound like accepted wisdom.

I have no doubt he meant to be encouraging, but that was not how I received it. Probably unkindly, I attributed his confidence not to his experience but to his having grown too accustomed to students hanging on every word he said, unaware that in many cases this was simply because those words might end up in the exam. 

My cynicism was exacerbated by the fact that I was not enjoying my PhD. I was seriously wondering if the problem I was working on was solvable – or, more specifically, if it was solvable by me. Like many PhD students, I was living on a scholarship that offered a fraction of the salaries of my friends out “in the real world”, but I was also keenly aware that nobody would suggest that two years of an unfinished PhD was good experience.

If I had been asked then what would make me happy, I might have pointed to the head of department. I never thought I would have the security of a tenured academic, the confidence of a recognised expert and the status (and salary) of departmental top dog. But I really did think that if I did, I would be truly professionally satisfied.

As it turned out, I did get to be a head of department. And I have been extremely lucky to have had other positions and experiences since that have been exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling far beyond what I could ever have hoped for. However, as Mother Teresa is reputed to have said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones”, and 30 years on from that discussion, I hope I have a better understanding of the difficulties of being happy over the course of an academic career.

These difficulties often start with the exhortations from senior university leaders to create impact, be innovative, inspire students, get grant money and deliver high teaching survey scores, all while achieving the mythical work-life balance. These multiple priorities demand a tightrope act that has been made even more difficult by Covid.

Even heads of department and deans are not immune from pressure. While they are acknowledged (and rewarded) for these roles, they are also expected to diplomatically manage and inspire the pseudo-democracy they are responsible for while simultaneously implementing the sometimes draconian policies of university provosts like myself. This may be a different type of tightrope act, but it is often just as precarious.

Such pressures often strike at the heart of the reasons people (including myself) were attracted to universities in the first place. One is the idea that we would have the autonomy to pursue and advance important ideas and create new understandings. Another is that we would have the security to innovate and seek to reveal unique and valuable insights. And a third is that we would be part of a supportive community that is stronger because of, not despite, its diversity. Post-Covid, it is arguably more important than ever that we return to these roots and continue to connect and search for ways to find joy in university life.   

I did ultimately find that joy in my PhD. Bolstered by the realisation that I would be able to reveal unique insights into the core question, I progressively fell in love with my research programme. I got support from my supervisors and friends, but I also found the opportunity to develop my own ideas truly exciting. I remember not being able to sleep one night because of the anticipation of finding out the results of an experiment the next morning.

That period continues to be a reminder for me of why I believe in the university mission and continue to love working in the sector. While the wisdom of my former head of department was not appreciated at the time, I am ultimately very pleased that he turned out to be right.

Nic Smith is provost and professor of engineering at Queensland University of Technology.

 

‘It has taken me over a decade to recover some of the playfulness and freedom I had in graduate school’

A confession, and one bound to make me few friends: I was happy in graduate school. It helped that I had low expectations of employment afterwards. I had gone in to study Old English, and the line in my department at the time was, “When Anglo-Saxonists die, they don’t get replaced.” Still, I was an immigrant to North America. Had I done as my parents wished, I would have studied medicine or law. It felt like an unheard-of luxury for someone with my background to spend half a decade studying literature and the Middle Ages, and to have someone else pay for it.

Because I was doing the PhD for my own satisfaction, I approached it with a sense of exploration and play. I studied modern languages alongside the medieval ones. I wrote bad poetry and bought cheap student tickets to the Metropolitan opera in New York. I had fun with my seminar papers, too. I inserted fake references into an essay on 18th-century mock footnotes, and wrote an analysis of Piers Plowman in the style of Georges Bataille that was so over the top it was almost convincing again.

One ever-patient professor wrote that my essay for him on the history of cosmetics was more of a magazine article. (I should have taken that advice and run with it.) I knew I was unlikely to be accepted by my traditional, male-dominated field, so I did not try to mould myself to their preferences. I enjoyed my intellectual freedom while I had it.

When, against all expectations, I landed a tenure-track professorship before finishing my doctorate, my experience of academe changed. I now had something to lose. What had been play became “work”. The problem with this was not the labour involved – I was happy at the time to stay in the office until midnight – but the feeling that I had to cater to the judgements of all my senior colleagues, both inside the university and in the field at large.

My intellectual bent had not changed: I still wanted to read broadly and to write in a variety of genres, not just on medieval literature. But I discovered quickly that an assistant professor was supposed to show a single-minded focus on getting tenure. I will never forget my department-appointed “mentor” chewing me out when she learned I was taking a French course on the weekends. As it happens, I was refreshing my French for a coming medievalist conference in Poitiers, but she saw it as another proof of my lack of dedication. I was learning that academia did not value curiosity and learning so much as narrow professionalisation. 

It has taken me over a decade to recover some of the playfulness and freedom I had in graduate school. Tenure helped. I turned down prestigious offers of tenure-track jobs elsewhere and sacrificed my physical and mental well-being to get it, and it still took years to accept that I was no longer being tested. But once I finally did, I started writing with a sense of pleasure and discovery again.

I wrote about medieval literature, but also about immigrant novels, food memoirs and dance history. I began, after a long hiatus, to learn languages again – Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian – none of them for research purposes. I now teach courses connected both to my research and my public writing projects, sometimes by student request.

Tenure more than doubled my teaching and service load, but it gave me back an inner freedom that is priceless: the liberty to craft an intellectual and creative life not bounded by a narrow discipline or field, and not governed by the judgement of others.

Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.

 

‘It really felt that through my teams’ research and advocacy I was doing my bit to improve the world’

If you were to ask me in a year or two’s time to pinpoint the happiest time of my career, I may well answer that it is my current time as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. What could surpass the feeling of leading the UK’s premier private university, a beacon for intellectual excellence, independence and freedom of speech?

I am currently only a year and a half into the job, however, and I’m only now able to focus on the university’s exciting future, rather than looking into the rear-view mirror, solving significant problems of the past.

So, instead, I’ll opt for the decade from 1998 – when, aged 38, I became a tenured professor at Newcastle University. It was such a relief to finally have a permanent position, rather than the insecure contract jobs I’d been holding until then. And I loved having that title, “professor”. It gave me the confidence to know that my academic work had passed muster in at least some hallowed quarters – even if, as a Conservative academic who embraced the cut and thrust of public debate on radio and TV, I was never going to be popular with everyone. (Indeed, my then boss recently told me over dinner that some of the professoriate wanted to “cancel” me even back then: it is to Newcastle’s immense credit that I didn’t even get a whiff of this threat to my career at the time.)

Then I had the most extraordinary epiphany, aged 40, in the slums of Hyderabad, India. My research specialism by that time was private education in developing countries. Everyone knew that private education is only for the privileged, but I wanted my life’s work to be about serving the poor. On a day off from consultancy work for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private finance arm of the World Bank, I wandered down a dark alleyway and chanced upon a school – a low-cost private school serving a poor community. Then I found another, and soon I was connected to a federation of over 500 low-cost private schools. I realised that private education was as applicable to the poor as anyone else. The whole focus of my academic life changed.

Securing large research grants from the John Templeton Foundation, I went researching low-cost private schools in the slums of West and East Africa, India and rural China, and then in some of the war-torn countries of Africa. I got a terrific group of academics around me at Newcastle, created teams around the world, and the low-cost private school movement really took off.

At the beginning, I met with denial and dismissal: “Tooley is ploughing a lonely furrow, and long may it stay that way.” By the end of that period, however, I was receiving national and international awards for research and development on this important new field, culminating in a Gold Prize in the first Financial Times/IFC private sector development competition.

Those were heady days. There was nothing to match doing research in the poorest parts of the world, cataloguing the entrepreneurial spirit in education that was solving problems unaided by governments or international agencies. It is hard to do good in life, but it really felt that through my teams’ research and research-based advocacy I was doing my bit to improve the world.

I’ve still got a couple of projects going on in this regard, and as things settle down here, I’d love the University of Buckingham to become the centre of global excellence in this field. Maybe that’s how I can bring these two parts of my life together. There would truly be nothing to match the feeling of leading a great university, global in scope, to reach the parts other universities cannot reach.

James Tooley is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

 

‘My career has not been joyful or safe. But comfort is a cage, and happiness is the lure’

I taught my first courses as a tutor and occasional lecturer – described at the time as a “teaching apprentice” – in 1992. My 30-year academic career has spanned nine universities in four countries. These decades have been marinated in fear, disgust and despair, offset by occasional hope and frequent pride at the teaching, learning and research of colleagues and students.

I have not had the privilege of stable jobs in posh institutions, working in disciplines respected by national governments. Instead, I have jumped from glass cliff to glass cliff: contract jobs with a great view of the organisation, but lacking the ability to move in any direction. Glass cliffs are pretty crowded these days. We are all the precariat now.

The first 10 years of my career, I learned my craft as a teacher. The second decade enabled my research trajectory and expertise. This third decade has contained leadership posts, so I can activate – albeit from one of those glass cliffs – a commitment to collegiality, collaboration and followership.

I have not sat in the car park of academic life. I have gone to the dance. Sometimes, the resultant movement was a destructive body slam. Frequently, it was a disappointment. The entry fee to this dance is high. We as academics lose any sense of home. In the past 15 years, I have lived in temporary accommodation – including motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and Airbnbs – for 26 months. And counting. The instability of higher education has an impact on teaching and research, but also on family life. For those 26 months (and counting), I have lived out of two suitcases, occasionally with the “convenience” of a microwave.

Why? Because the only decision worse than accepting a perilous post in a dodgy university is to buy a house in the local area. I have learned initially to sit and watch the daily lived experience of leadership and followership, and assess the stability of the university. Then, if needed, I can check out of the Hotel California. A senior colleague of mine took a less circumspect approach and ended up owning three houses in two countries during a recession as he bounced from job to job to job. The stress broke him and his marriage.

So my career has not been joyful or safe. But comfort is a cage, and happiness is the lure. Happiness has never been my aim. Knowledge discovery and dissemination, integrity, decency, kindness and compassion are the point. And occasionally – as the acid house dance track of life soared – the peak moments of teaching, research and leadership have been stunning. Inspirational. Amazing.

As I look back on all these jobs in all these countries, I conclude that I was most satisfied and fulfilled when I was professor and head of the creative media department in a demeaned university in the north of England. No time was wasted on rankings or international branding. Instead, every day was provocative and intriguing. There was laughter and intellectual discussions with colleagues. I taught the most extraordinary first-year students in my career. It was a tough place. From that brutality, a startling beauty was forged.

My contract for that post was incredibly unstable. The pay was low. I could be sacked with one month’s notice. The senior leadership was frightening and ruthless. Therefore, when the opportunity emerged for a more stable working environment as a head of school in Australia, I jumped to that slightly less brittle cliff.

In this new location, I made great friends. Solid academic work was conducted. But it was in the north of England where I felt useful to a community and university. I was not there for long, but much of my heart and most of my hopes for higher education still live in the North.

To cite Christopher Eccleston’s regeneration of Doctor Who, “Lots of planets have a North.” I hope you have a compass to find yours. And know that – when you do – you will have to leave it.

Tara Brabazon is the professor of cultural studies at Flinders University. She has published two books this year: 12 rules for (academic) life: A stroppy feminist guide to teaching, learning, politics and Jordan Peterson (Springer) and Comma: How to restart, reclaim and reboot your PhD (Author’s Republic).

 

‘I had no great expectations of getting tenure. Still, that hardly dimmed my excitement in discovering the past’

Perhaps it is nothing more than the sigh of an ageing academic to say that the happiest time in my career was before it became a paying career. Perhaps it is also the sentiment of a historian more comfortable with rifling through the pasts of others rather than his own.

Or, perhaps, it is just as the 19thcentury French author Stendhal meant when he insisted that we are happiest when we think we have good reason to expect happiness. When that expectation becomes reality, however, we find ourselves asking, as do Stendhal’s heroes, “Quoi! n’est-ce que ça?” What? Is that all it comes to?

But there are times when an experience really does come to something that borders on true happiness. And, as Stendhal also knew, these times are mostly in our youth. Even when that youth is spent as a grad student.

Given the dismal professional prospects for young academics today, it might seem perverse to cast my grad years as the time when I was happiest. But the job market in the 1980s was only slightly less grim than it is now; I had no great expectations of finding a tenure-line position either. Still, that hardly dimmed my great excitement in discovering the past.

I was new to the study of history – I had taken my BA in philosophy – and, as L.P. Hartley’s old chestnut goes, the past was a foreign country. And, yes, people did do things differently there. This is not surprising: the 19thcentury people I studied happened to be French. But these people did these things differently at a historical moment when, as George Steiner remarked, time itself seemed to accelerate and the Western world careened into what he called “the perpetuity of crisis”. All of this was certainly dire, yet it was also, quite simply, a source of wonder.

That wonder was multi-faceted. It extended not just to how our ancestors understood the vast changes sweeping over their lives, but also to how 20th-century historians interpreted these past lives, in often stunning and startling ways. There was also wonder at my first encounters with French archives, and the thrill of weaving the documents into a story that, I hoped, would feel familiar to those who lived through that era. And, as time went by, there was wonder at landing a postdoctoral position and the prospect of being paid to sit in those archives and to teach students what I knew and discovered.

Since then, the wonder, and the happiness that accompanied it, has been worn thin, not so much by the routine of teaching as by the generational rupture caused by technology. Thirty years ago, my students still resembled my younger self. This is no longer the case. We have been heaved from a literate to post-literate world, where most students, plugged into their electronic devices, have scarcely enough attention to make sense of the present, let alone the past. Splashing around in the shallows has mostly taken the place of plunging into the depths.

And yet, even now there are still exceptional students who make for exceptional moments in the classroom. In the middle of a discussion, there is a click. A sudden connection with a text or event leads all of us to realise the past is not dead or even past. It is still a country that welcomes visitors.

The French word for happiness, bonheur, originally meant “good fortune” or “good auguries”. I take such classroom exchanges as good auguries for the days still to come.

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the Honors College, University of Houston.

 

‘Interaction is not a curse but a blessing that makes the academic life a particularly rich human tapestry’

No academic career phase has proved to be any more inherently enjoyable than any other for me. What really stimulates me about the academic life is something that is more or less equally available wherever you stand on the hierarchy. And that is engaged human interaction.

Yet it was only recently that I fully grasped this.

Ordinarily, university campuses are always stimulating and productive places. From teaching in front of a class to attending seminars, participating in meetings and performing experiments, the academic life is never boring and always challenging. Unfortunately, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 put the brakes on all that. We all quickly realised that no Zoom-based class or meeting can replace real-life interaction, no remote work can achieve the levels of productivity attained at the university, and working from home is not good for mental health. As I struggled through March, April and May to finish teaching my course, I realised how important it was for me to be able to get back to the university as soon as possible.

Given that I run my own lab (as well as my department), I had the perfect argument to convince the administrators at my institution to let me do so. After all, someone needed to check on the freezers that store our biological samples to make sure that they were all working; if they weren’t, we could lose years of work.

But my happiness was short-lived. I tried to get back to my normal routine, but it just wasn’t the same. I entered a campus devoid of people (except for security guards) and then walked through a dark building until I got to my office and turned on the light. After checking all the labs to make sure that the refrigerators and freezers were functioning normally, I settled into my office and worked. While my productivity benefited to some extent from the silence, my mood was darker than the corridors.

Hours would go by without any human contact. For someone with an open-door philosophy, who welcomes regular interruptions from the students, faculty and staff who simply walk in, this situation was anathema. For the first time in my 30-plus year professional life, I realised that I was not looking forward to coming to work.

I was lonely. I was pining for interaction. I reflected that without human interactions, we are simply going through life without meaning and without ever knowing anything new about ourselves. As Hegel very well stated, self-consciousness exists only in being acknowledged.

At best, this mutual acknowledgement is what the academic life can offer in abundance. Universities are such large, complex, ambitious organisations that they demand constant, multi-level interaction.

Admittedly, that situation sometimes comes with its own problems, when so much time is absorbed in overly long meetings and when so much that you might want to do comes with personal and institutional politics that needs to be traversed. It seems to me that the key to happiness as an academic, then, is to learn to embrace this, and to see interaction not as a curse that takes times away from more important matters, but as a blessing that makes the academic life a particularly rich human tapestry.

Even Aristotle – who found plenty of time for solitary thinking – defined humans as social animals. Denial of one’s social nature is indeed a fast track to unhappiness.

Michael Hadjiargyrou is professor and chair of the department of biological and chemical sciences at the New York Institute of Technology. Previously, he was graduate programme director and associate vice-president for research at Stonybrook University.